White Horses

For as long as I can remember, when we were out and about, even when driving along in the car, if we passed a field with a white horse in it my mother would say “Bow to the white horse” and we all did. (Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a white horse as technically they are all greys.) This is a tradition I have always continued and today even when out cycling if we see a ‘white’ horse my husband is also primed to say it – “Bow to the white horse.” I never knew why my mother said this, I don’t think I ever asked, it was just something she said and we did. I don’t even know if she knew why or whether it was just something her mother said, and her mother before that and so on.

Lady Godiva Statue, Coventy

Lady Godiva Statue, Coventry. (Wiki)

When I was at secondary school we studied ‘Classical Mythology’ i.e. the myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans. It was only as I got older that I realised that here in the lands of the north we had our own mythologies – Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic and I often wondered why we never learnt about those at school; myths that were surely more relevant to our own heritage. I know my father was interested, he had copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the Heimskringla (Norse Sagas) but never passed on his knowledge to me, although I do now own his books and have taken an interest in these stories of our own tradition as I have grown older.

It was quite some years later that the ‘penny finally dropped’ as they say. References to white horses are everywhere in our lives and in our stories. Witness the number of pubs called ‘The White Horse’, our heroes are ‘knights in shining armour’ riding a white horse such as St. George, King Arthur and even the wizard ‘Gandalf in Lord of the Rings’. Lady Godiva rode a white horse through the streets of Coventry as recorded in the nursery rhyme “Ride-a-cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady ride on a white horse…”.

White Horse of Uffingham

White Horse of Uffingham (Wiki)

There is also Rhiannon of Welsh legend and we cannot forget the ‘White Horse of Uffingham’ an ancient chalk carving in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire. I could go on, the list is endless.

The White Horse is of course a reference to Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and maybe also a fertility goddess, who often appeared as a white horse or is depicted as riding a white horse. Interestingly she is probably the only Celtic goddess who was retained by the Romans when they ruled the British Isles. Usually they either discarded the local gods and goddesses, absorbed them into their own equivalents or adopted them by giving them a Roman name. Bowing to the white horse is obviously a nod to the worship of this ancient goddess. My mother may well have known this or maybe not, but long may the tradition continue in my family.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jules
    Jul 09, 2018 @ 17:15:42

    Thank you for sharing this rich history.
    I know that when albinos are born there is a flurry of good wished.
    Like in some Native People tradition when a white bull is born.
    I wonder if there is a relationship to those two different things. Or is it just the power of something different?

    A white buffalo or white bison is an American bison possessing white fur, and is considered sacred or spiritually significant in several Native American religions; therefore, such buffalo are often visited for prayer and other religious rituals.

    Reply

    • Libby
      Jul 10, 2018 @ 13:34:40

      There is obviously something special, probably in many cultures, about whiteness although the white horses I refer to are not considered to be albino. White (i.e Grey rather than albino) horses are quite common, we have owned a few in our time. I didn’t know about the significance of white buffalo to the Native Americans so thanks for this. White is a symbol of purity, hence bridal white, and possibly because of the way a white animal can appear ghostly in misty conditions there is a certain other-worldliness and spirituality about them. (Unicorns are usually depicted as being white.) Just a thought.

      Reply

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